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Coronavirus drugs-vaccines coming, give us time: Pulitzer-winning cancer researcher Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee

In an exclusive conversation with India Today as part of the E-Conclave Corona Series, Pulitzer-winning author and cancer surgeon Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee says that while there is hope at the end of the novel coronavirus tunnel, scientists just need some time to come up with a vaccine or drug to fight the virus.

Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee has also authored The Laws of Medicine
Dr Mukherjee is the editor of Best Science Writing 2013
His latest work is THE GENE: An Intimate History
An assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University and a cancer physician and researcher, Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee is most popularly known as the author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Dr Mukherjee was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction for his book.

Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee joined India Today’s Rajdeep Sardesai for an exclusive discussion on the novel coronavirus outbreak and how it has changed the world. “The main thing we want is to buy time until we get a good vaccine or drugs. There are drugs coming, there is hope at the end of this tunnel, a vaccine will come. Everyone’s job is to buy us time. If you can buy us the time, we are trying our best.”

What India can learn from America?

Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee: India can learn from America about preparedness. The first case was reported on January 21 in Washington, the first proper kits were not available until the first week of March. We are talking about 40 days.

All viruses have an R0 number attached to it. It means the number of people one can infect. “Preparation is key,” Dr Mukherjee says.

Full coverage of E-Conclave 2020 Corona Series

What makes Covid-19 so different?

Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee: There are two features. Asymptomatic carriers can carry the virus and spread it, this is very unique. It’s not the case for Corona’s cousins SARS and MARS.

The second feature is if you don’t have any protection, the R0 keeps rising.

hat do we know about Covid-19?

Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee: There are plenty of people in their 20s and 30s who have died from the disease. Older people co-morbid conditions

We know the sequence of the virus, the genes. We also know potential places to attack the virus which is what the vaccine is about but it will take time. There are, however, many things still unknown.

Where are we on drugs for Covid-19?

Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee: When you develop a new drug against a virus, it goes through certain phases. The first phase is when an existing drug is re-purposed. There are two drugs in that category that stand out right now, are Hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir by Gilead

The second drugs are antibodies, these latch on specifically to coronavirus. Antibodies have to be produced in large quantities and have to be kept very clean.

Viruses have special capabilities to make copies of themselves. The third category of drugs is those meant to locate these copy-making abilities of viruses.

The fourth category is the vaccine. They take a very long time but are the most effective. Most importantly, the safety profile for a vaccine is crucial. The fastest vaccine we have developed is in 14-18 months.

What is the best strategy for this pandemic?
Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee: There is no one solution, it is a combination of solutions. Countries can only stay in lockdown for so long. If you don’t do lockdown, the cases rise exponentially. If the virus is allowed to spread unchecked, the number of cases will surpass the world’s population in 40 days.

By lockdown, we try not to overwhelm the healthcare system. We lower the curve of the spread of infection.

There are conditions that can allow us to get out of the lockdown. The first is testing that reveals what the real numbers are. The second is quarantine and isolation can be done using technology. The third is, you can lock down your own respiratory system.

Lockdown has to be removed along with testing and in phases.

Will we enter a changed world post-coronavirus?

Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee: It will be a changed world. We will be better prepared for the next pandemic. Many countries acted late. Stigma will be attached to those infected with coronavirus.

How much credence do you give to the fact that Covid-19 was developed in a lab?

Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee: I personally do not believe that.

Will you write a book on the history of Covid-19?

Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee: I have a book that has a dedicated section on viruses and vaccines. But I don’t see myself writing a book on the history of Covid-19, as of now.

Science

Will India pin its hopes on anti-viral drug remdesivir?

With cases on the rise, India is closely tracking progress of anti-viral drug remdesivir’s usage to cure Covid-19 patients.

After Gilead Science’s anti-viral drug remdesivir showed signs that it could become a standard of care to fight Covid-19 pandemic, a US government disease expert welcomed the key clinical trial results. India, too, may pin its hopes on the drug in a bid to treat rising Covid-19 patients.

Gilead Science’s antiviral drug remdesivir gained traction after the US governmADVERTISEMENectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci called the early results of a key clinical trial as “good news” in the fight against novel coronavirus.

Preliminary results showed that patients given remdesivir recovered 31 per cent faster than those given a placebo.

: Gilead says remdesivir shows improvement in Covid-19 patients when used early President Donald Trump called the remdesivir drug trials “a stepping stone in moving faster in the direction of making a vaccine”.

Fauci said, “FDA is working with Gilead to figure out mechanisms to make this easily available to those who need it.”

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a wing of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US, said early results from its 1,063 patient trials show that hospitalised Covid-19 patients who were given remdesivir recovered in 11 days, compared to 15 days for those who were given a placebo.

The study also showed that 8 per cent of patients who were given the drug died, as compared to 11.6 per cent in the placebo group. However, the difference was not statistically significant so may not be due to Gilead’s drug, they added.

Will India consider remdesivir?

India is part of World Health Organisation’s (WHO) solidarity trials for vaccines.

Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) Director Dr Raman Gangakhedkar said earlier that India has kept an eye out on the results from the trials conducted with remdesivir and the data that is being collected on it.

“It is a product made by Gilead company. ICMR is participating in a solidarity trial with WHO, an arm of that solidarity trial is also working on the efficaciousness of remdesivir. Can other pharmaceutical companies make it? Once we know that then we shall move forward from there,” said Gangakhedkar on April 13.

It has been widely reported that remdesivir had previously failed as a treatment for Ebola, but it is now being tried against the novel coronavirus. Gangakhedkar explained that the drug prevents certain viruses from multiplying.

“Remdesivir a drug that was being used in Ebola outbreak. The drug acts on the mutation of the Covid-19 virus, which is why researchers believe that it could work.”

An earlier clinical trial conducted in China with remdesivir revealed details about the Ebola drug’s inefficacy on critical Covid-19 patients.

Released prematurely by WHO, results of the China trial suggested no benefit of the drug in terms of preventing death and reducing virus load. WHO retracted it soon after. Gilead had rejected the claim and said the study was released too early due to low patient enrolment.

Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) Director Dr Raman Gangakhedkar said earlier that India has kept an eye out on the results from the trials conducted with remdesivir and the data that is being collected on it.

Milan Sharma 

US grants emergency approval for remdesivir for Covid-19 patients

Remdesivir

During a meeting in the Oval Office with President Donald Trump, Gilead Chief Executive Daniel O’Day called the move an important first step and said the company was donating 1 million vials of the drug to help patients.
In this file photo one vial of the drug Remdesivir is viewed during a press conference about the start of a study with the Ebola drug Remdesivir in particularly severely ill patients at the University Hospital Eppendorf (UKE) in Hamburg, northern Germany on April 8, 2020, amidst the new coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic.
In this file photo one vial of the drug Remdesivir is viewed during a press conference about the start of a study with the Ebola drug Remdesivir in particularly severely ill patients at the University Hospital Eppendorf (UKE) in Hamburg, northern Germany on April 8, 2020, amidst the new coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic. (AFP)
The experimental drug remdesivir has been authorized by US regulators for emergency use against Covid-19, President Donald Trump announced Friday.

It comes after the antiviral made by Gilead Sciences was shown in a major clinical trial to shorten the time to recovery in some coronavirus patients, the first time any medicine has had a proven benefit against the disease.

“It is really a really promising situation,” Trump said at the White House, where he was joined by Gilead’s CEO Daniel O’Day.

“We are humbled with this first step for hospitalized patients,” said O’Day, adding: “We want to make sure nothing gets in the way of these patients getting the medicine.”

The company has previously announced it was donating some 1.5 million doses for free.

This amounts to about 140,000 treatment courses based on a 10-day treatment duration.

Remdesivir, which is administered by an injection, was already available to some patients who enrolled in clinical trials, or who sought it out on a “compassionate use” basis.

The new move allows it to be distributed far more widely and used in both adults and children who are hospitalized with a severe form of Covid-19.

The Food and Drug Administration, which authorized the approval, defines severe as having low blood oxygen levels, requiring oxygen therapy, or being on a ventilator.

‘Proof of concept’

The US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) announced the results of a trial involving more than 1,000 people on Wednesday.

It found that hospitalised Covid-19 patients with respiratory distress got better quicker than those on a placebo.

Specifically, patients on the drug had a 31 percent faster time to recovery.

“Although the results were clearly positive from a statistically significant standpoint, they were modest,” Anthony Fauci, the scientist who leads the NIAID told NBC News on Thursday.

While not considered a miracle cure, remdesivir’s trial achieved a “proof of concept,” according to Fauci that could pave the way for better treatments.

Remdesivir incorporates itself into the virus’s genome, short circuiting its replication process.

It was first developed to treat Ebola, a viral hemorrhagic fever, but did not boost survival rates as other medicines.

The Food and Drug Administration FDA) has signed on the emergency use of Gilead Sciences Inc’s remdesivir drug for treating severe cases of COVID-19.

The drug, according to studies reduced the time it took patients to recover from the coronavirus infection. US President Donald Trump, on May 1, said that the FDA has granted Emergence Use Authorisation (EUA) for the investigational antiviral remdesivir.

Follow our LIVE Updates on the coronavirus pandemic here

The announcement was made at the Oval Office by Trump alongside Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day.

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“This EUA opens the way for us to provide emergency use of remdesivir to more patients with severe symptoms of COVID-19,” said Daniel O’Day, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Gilead Sciences.

Also Read | Exclusive: Gilead says open to collaborate with govts, drug firms to make Remdesivir globally available

“We will continue to work with partners across the globe to increase our supply of remdesivir while advancing our ongoing clinical trials to supplement our understanding of the drug’s profile. We are working to meet the needs of patients, their families and healthcare workers around the world with the greatest sense of urgency and responsibility.”

Science

Earth Is Vibrating Substantially Less Because There’s So Little Activity Right Now

by VICTOR TANGERMANN: According to seismologists, that drastic reduction in human hustle and bustle is causing the Earth to move substantially less. The planet is ‘standing still’.

Thomas Lecocq, a geologist and seismologist at the Royal Observatory in Belgium, noticed that the country’s capital Brussels is experiencing a 30 to 50 percent reduction in ambient seismic noise since the lockdowns began, as CNN reports.


That means data collected by seismologists is becoming more accurate, capable of detecting even the smallest tremors – despite the fact that many of the scientific instruments in use today are near city centers.

“You’ll get a signal with less noise on top, allowing you to squeeze a little more information out of those events,” Andy Frassetto, a seismologist at the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology in Washington DC told Nature.

Researchers in Los Angeles and in West London, UK noticed a similar trend.

But seismologists collecting data from remote stations far away from human civilization might not see a change at all, according to Nature.

Regardless, a significant drop in seismic noise also shows that we’re at least doing one thing right during the current pandemic: staying in the safety of our own homes as we wait for the virus to run its course.

This article was originally published by Futurism.

Science

Malaria carrying mosquitoes can sense insecticide

Related image

London: In a first, researchers have shown that proteins in the legs of malaria carrying mosquitoes help them develop resistant to insecticides, an advance that may lead to new strategies against the disease which kills nearly 4,00,000 people each year.

The study, published in the journal Nature, noted that insecticide resistant populations of two malaria carrying mosquitoes — Anopheles gambiae and Anopheles coluzzii — express a family of binding proteins situated in their legs.

According to the researchers from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) in the UK, the newly found resistance mechanism may be contributing to the lower than expected efficacy of bed nets in Western Africa where these mosquitoes are widely found.

“The protein, which is based in the legs, comes into direct contact with the insecticide as the insect lands on the net, making it an excellent potential target for future additives to nets to overcome this potent resistance mechanism,” explained Victoria Ingham, study first author from LSTM.

Studying the mosquitoes, the researchers proved that the binding protein, SAP2, was found elevated in resistant populations, and further elevated following contact with pyrethroids — the insecticide class which is used on all bed nets.

When the scientists partially silenced the gene that coded for this protein, lowering its production in the mosquitoes, the study said, susceptibility to the insecticide were restored. Conversely, the researchers said, when the protein was expressed at elevated levels, previously susceptible mosquitoes became resistant to pyrethroids.

–PTI

Science

These 11 astronauts just graduated under NASA’s Artemis mission

NASA has reportedly shortlisted 11 candidates for its Artemis mission that aims to put the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024. The ultimate goal is to land humans on Mars. The 11 NASA candidates along with two candidates from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) were selected in 2017.

It looks like NASA has shortlisted 11 candidates for its Artemis mission that aims to put the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024. The ultimate goal of the Artemis mission is to land humans on Mars. The 11 NASA candidates along with two candidates from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), who were selected in 2017, were the first class of astronauts to graduate under the Artemis program. They completed two years of basic training for spaceflight.

The 11 NASA astronauts who graduated for Artemis mission include Kayla Barron, Zena Cardman, Raja Chari, Matthew Dominick, Bob Hines, Warren Hoburg, Dr. Jonny Kim, Jasmin Moghbeli, Loral O’Hara, Dr. Francisco “Frank” Rubio, Jessica Watkins. The two CSA astronauts are Joshua Kutryk, Jennifer Sidey-Gibbons.

The training also included assignments to the International Space Station (ISS), Artemis missions to the Moon, and ultimately, missions to Mars, NASA said in a press statement. Prior to this, NASA had shared details on how it is preparing potential astronauts for lower gravity environment of the Moon using its Neutral Buoyancy Lab which is located at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The first class of astronauts under Artemis program were selected from a record-setting 18,000 applicants, NASA revealed. Spacewalking, robotics, International Space Station systems, T-38 jet proficiency, and Russian language were also part of the training. The NASA and CSA astronauts will join the rank of 500 people who have ever gone into space.

NASA has said the its Orion capsule is ready for the Artemis lunar mission. The crew capsule will head towards the lunar orbit by June 2020. It will be launched around the Moon on NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. The spacecraft will take the crew to the lunar orbit and will return them to Earth as well.

NASA has also designed two new spacesuits for the Artemis program – Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) and Orion Crew Survival System. The former is built on the design of suits that are already worn by astronauts on the ISS, while the second one is a bright orange pressure suit that will be worn by astronauts when they launch into space on Orion and return to Earth.

By: BT Tech Desk

Science

Solar Eclipse Myths, Dos And Don’ts To Keep In Mind

Surya Grahan 2019, Solar Eclipse 2019: Scientists say that the only safe way to look directly at the uneclipsed or partially- eclipsed sun is through special-purpose solar filters, such as “eclipse glasses” or hand-held solar viewers.

Surya Grahan 2019: Solar Eclipse Myths, Dos And Don'ts To Keep In Mind

Surya Grahan: Use eye protection during Solar Eclipse like a special eclipse glasses.

Some parts of India and the world will witness partial solar eclipse on December 26, Thursday. This is an “annular” solar eclipse, also known as “ring of fire”. The annular solar eclipse occurs when the moon covers the sun from its center, leaving its outer edges visible. So this year, the Moon will cover Sun from the center, while the edges will form what’s known as “ring of fire”. According to timeanddate.com, the first location to see the beginning of partial eclipse is 7:59 am IST. The first location to see the beginning of full eclipse is 9:04 am IST. The maximum eclipse would occur at 10:47 am IST. The last location to see the end of full eclipse is 12:30 pm IST and last location to see the end of partial eclipse is at 1:35 pm IST. It will initially be visible as a partial eclipse and emerge in Riyadh and Saudi Arabia first. The partial eclipse will also be visible in various Indian locations like Mumbai, Bengaluru and New Delhi. It will also be visible in Doha, Dubai, Kuwait City, Karachi, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, General Santos, Davao, and Saipan.

Surya Grahan: Myths, Dos and Don’ts Of Watching Solar Eclipse:

1.    NASA advises that it is dangerous to see solar eclipses through naked eyes and it can damage one’s eyes. So don’t look at the Sun directly. Looking at the Sun, even for a few seconds, can lead to permanent damage to the retina of the eye, it says.
2.    Don’t look at the Sun even while using any kind of optical aid like binoculars, a telescope, or an optical camera viewfinder as it can be extremely hazardous and can cause irreversible eye damage within a fraction of a second.
3.    Don’t try to use sunglasses, smoked glass, or some other home-made substitute. They’re not safe to use during partial solar eclipse or surya grahan.
4.    Use eye protection during surya grahan like a special eclipse glasses should be used to witness the solar eclipse. Always use special-purpose solar filters, such as “eclipse glasses” or hand-held solar viewers to watch the solar eclipse, say scientists.
5.    Scientists say that the only safe way to look directly at the uneclipsed or partially eclipsed sun is through special-purpose solar filters, such as “eclipse glasses” or hand-held solar viewers. NASA suggests that when using or buying the eclipse glasses or hand-held solar viewers, they should be verified to be compliant with the ISO 12312-2 international safety standard for such products.
6.    Always inspect solar filter before use. If scratched or damaged, discard it. Read and follow any instructions printed on or packaged with the filter, suggests NASA.

Environment, Science

Indian bull frog: the Andamans’ new colonisers

A narrow road bifurcates the hyper-green paddy fields of Webi village in Middle Andaman, in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. A clear stream flows around the Webi, home to the Karen community, brought to these shores from Myanmar 93 years ago.

At dusk, as fading sunlight paints the surrounding hills in silhouette, the calls of cicadas, crickets and frogs rise in crescendo. In the cacophonic stillness, a centipede winds its way across the empty weathered road. And then, in the blink of an eye, it’s gone, swallowed whole by a recent migrant to the island — the Indian bullfrog (Hoplobatrachus tigerinus).

Barely 10 cm long, this particular specimen is small. But the larger ones weigh at least half a kilo. The golden stripe on their backs and the glitter around their throats shine in the diffused light of a mobile phone. Less than two feet from the centipede-eater sits another frog. Next to that, one more, and another, and another… scores of frogs in varied sizes, basking in the warmth of the asphalt. Every now and then, one of them leaps toward the murky waters of the paddy fields. There is nothing frog-like about the deep, guttural croaks of these prolific breeders. Rather, they sound more like a bull with a sore throat.

“It wasn’t here even five years ago. Now they’ve taken over the village,” says Nau Thaw Raytoo, a mother of four, who lives in a concrete-bamboo house with her children, their wives, and her six grandchildren. Her broken Hindi shifts to fluent, high-pitched Karen when instructing raucous kids.

The bullfrog is only the latest entrant in the Andamans’ 150-year-old history of invasives. Picture shows Gannatabla village at Diglipur in North Andaman.

The bullfrog is only the latest entrant in the Andamans’ 150-year-old history of invasives. Picture shows Gannatabla village at Diglipur in North Andaman.   | Photo Credit: K. Murali KumarMORE-INGround Zero

The Indian bull frog, a recent arrival from the mainland, is steadily occupying the islands’ ecosystem and threatening the local economy. Mohit M. Rao reports on the bizarre man-frog conflict brewing in the islands

Barely 10 cm long, this particular specimen is small. But the larger ones weigh at least half a kilo. The golden stripe on their backs and the glitter around their throats shine in the diffused light of a mobile phone. Less than two feet from the centipede-eater sits another frog. Next to that, one more, and another, and another… scores of frogs in varied sizes, basking in the warmth of the asphalt. Every now and then, one of them leaps toward the murky waters of the paddy fields. There is nothing frog-like about the deep, guttural croaks of these prolific breeders. Rather, they sound more like a bull with a sore throat.

“It wasn’t here even five years ago. Now they’ve taken over the village,” says Nau Thaw Raytoo, a mother of four, who lives in a concrete-bamboo house with her children, their wives, and her six grandchildren. Her broken Hindi shifts to fluent, high-pitched Karen when instructing raucous kids.

Webi is just among the scores of villages in the islands where the amphibian has arrived in hordes. An unusual man-frog conflict is brewing. The voracious animal gulps down anything that would fit in its jaws: centipedes, leeches, native frogs, lizards, small snakes, and even chicks and ducklings, which are an important source of food for the islanders.

“I’ve seen them eat chicks, swallowing the head whole,” says Raytoo, adding that of the 15 chicks hatched in the family’s chicken coop this year, only three have survived. Balakishore, whose father is Ranchi (an overarching term for Jharkhand tribals who were settled here to clear the forests decades ago) and mother is Karen, has lost 50 ducklings to the frogs. When grown, each duck would have fetched at least ₹300 in the local market.

In the villages carved out of the virgin Andaman forests, the amphibian invader has evoked both surprise (“where did they come from?”) — and anxiety (“when will they go away?”). The bullfrog, found widely in mainland India and protected under Schedule IV of the Indian Wildlife Act 1972, is making the most of a free run that it’s enjoying in the erstwhile penal colony.

In the Andaman Islands, it can rain eight months of the year. The first rains in May are the signal for the bullfrogs to come out of the streams and agricultural ponds that have become their shelters. They breed by the hundreds, with each female able to lay between 3,500 and 20,000 eggs. Not all survive, but enough live to breed again, ensuring that the horde extends their range. With an average life span of seven years, and time to sexual maturity of 10-12 months, their population can dramatically shoot up in a very short time, which is precisely what happened once they landed in the islands.

“This is an invasion,” says Nitya Mohanty, a doctoral student at the Centre for Invasion Biology at Stellenbosch University (South Africa). His research, done with the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team, has been on invasive species — first on the chitals (spotted deer) that have established their herds in the Andamans, and now on the bullfrog invasion.

So far, the bullfrog has been found in six out of the eight major inhabited islands. In 2017, it was even found in Little Andaman, which is separated from the Greater Andaman Islands by more than 55 km of sea. “This kind of incursion into remote islands is not naturally possible in such a short time,” says Mohanty.

The frog has acquired many names in the course of its journey through multi-cultural settlements of the island: shona beng (‘Golden frog’, for the prominent golden stripe) among the Bengali settlers; haramendak (‘Green frog’, for its olive-green skin) in Ranchi villages, where you could hear Oraon, Sadri or Munda being spoken; and dey-phala (‘Green frog”) in villages where the 2,500-odd Karen community stays. Whatever the name or language, the narrative of economic loss and ecological threat is a constant.

How they spread

Mohanty’s team sought to define the contours of this “invasion” through interviews with locals. As early as 2001, the bullfrog had already established breeding populations in one village. By 2009, it had spread to seven villages. Since then, at least 53 villages have reported the bullfrog in worrying densities.

Like most contemporary tales in the archipelago, the bullfrog story may also have to do with the earthquake and the tsunami that devastated large parts of Andaman and Nicobar islands in 2004. Following the decline of natural fish stock, the local administration encouraged integrated farming, with aquaculture in agricultural ponds. There are now over 2,500 such ponds in the islands, most of them filled with stocks of exotic, fast-growing fish imported from the mainland.

The fishling stocks (mostly from Kolkata) released into some of these ponds were contaminated with bullfrog eggs and tadpoles. All fingers point at the local fisheries department, which has, however, dismissed these claims and accused private traders of having brought the invader to the islands.

Most villagers believe that the bullfrog’s first hop into the islands was in Diglipur, in the northern tip of the Andamans, where its prolific spread first became a talking point. By 2011, it was spotted at Mayabunder in Middle Andaman, and by 2013, it was found in Wandoor, near the southern tip of the Andamans, around 300 km from Diglipur. While many were accidental releases, in some areas, it had been released by villagers as a fast-breeding cheap food.

Researchers Harikrishnan Surendran and Karthikeyan Vasudevan had been working in Wandoor since 2008, and were the first to report the presence of the bullfrog as an invasive in a scientific journal. “[The spread] is not surprising at all, given the high reproductive output of Indian bullfrogs and their association with agricultural areas… it was only a matter of time before they got introduced to other islands,” says Surendran.

Nearly two years ago, while engaged in construction and repairs at a resort near Wandoor in South Andaman, M. Alazhagan, 35, saw a multitude of frogs thronging the swimming pool. Some, he says, had turned yellow, with blue globules on their throat — males decked up for the breeding season. He approached one, and it froze. He decided to take a selfie: him grinning in the foreground, with the frog posing meditatively in the background. “It looked so strange! So much bigger than the frogs we were used to seeing and so colourful,” he recalls.

But fascination soon gave way to frustration. In North Wandoor village, located at the edge of the Lohabarrack Salt Water Crocodile Sanctuary, it isn’t the crocs that villagers keep an eye on.

The tsunami had created salty channels in the area and rendered large tracts infertile. So, many had turned to creating agricultural ponds — to rear fish and also because they would serve as sources of freshwater when the rains filled it up. Shushil Mondal found that his pond had been taken over by frogs. “Earlier I could get 20 kg of fish whenever I spread the net. Now, I get only shona beng. There is no fish left now. It has eaten everything,” he says.

The frogs pose a threat particularly to the livelihoods of landless labourers, such as Parimal Das and his family of eight. They had migrated to the Andamans from Kolkata nearly 20 years ago, and are now nomads, leasing land wherever it is available to grow vegetables. Agriculture in a rain-heavy, saline-rich soil is difficult, and free-range chickens are an important and steady source of income, with each fetching up to ₹600. “I’ve lost six chicks this year already. We had to build a murghi ghar [wooden makeshift cage on stilts] to lock the chickens at night, but even then the frogs manage to squeeze through,” he says.

On the other side of the Greater Andaman islands, the Andaman Trunk Road snakes its way through dense forests. Trees form a seemingly impenetrable canopy, creepers drape branches in a gown of broad leaves, and undergrowth form layers upon layers above the damp soil. Amidst the shades of green, the Andaman Crape Myrtle, a deciduous tree, bursts in bouquets of small lilac flowers.

Five kilometres of these forests separate Gannatabla village — a settlement of Jharkhand tribals — from the nearest village in North Andaman. The village is a clump of 50 houses and a series of rectangular paddy fields. There is no pond here where fish is cultured. The bullfrog, however, lurks in these fields and drinking water wells.

Gannatabla village at Diglipur in North Andaman.

“We don’t know how it has come here. Three years ago, we spotted it in the streams that come through the forests when we went fishing for kala macchi (black fish). Now the fish is hardly seen but the frog is everywhere,” says 29-year-old Johnson Kirketa, suggesting that the bullfrog had crossed the forests through channels and streams.

Colonisers among the natives

Bullfrogs are found all over mainland India, but it is in the unique ecosystem of the islands that it becomes a major threat. Unlike the mainland, resources on the islands are scarce for big animals, while natural calamities are more frequent. The wildlife here has evolved in a miniature setting: there are no large herbivores (the largest is the Andaman wild pig) or large carnivores.

“Islands have fewer species, but their nature make them irreplaceable. They are found no where else in the world… This makes the entire food web in the islands very different from that of the mainland,” says Vasudevan, senior principal scientist at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad.

The Zoological Survey of India has found that out of the 9,130 marine and terrestrial species discovered so far in the islands, 1,032 species (or 11.30%) are endemic (found only in the Andamans). In the constraints of land, this endemicity increases to nearly 25%, or 816 out of the 3,271 land species. These creatures had evolved to cope with natural disaster, but have little capacity to withstand rapid, human-induced impacts. “There is not much room for redundancy and refuges in these islands,” says Vasudevan.

But the bullfrog is only the latest entrant in the Andamans’ 150-year-old history of invasives, with alien species introduced in waves by the British, Japanese, and ‘mainland’ Indians having gradually colonised many parts of the island territory. These include the elephant(introduced for logging and later abandoned), chital, hog deer, and barking deer (all three for game meat).

In 2013, using satellite imagery, Rauf Ali from the Puducherry-based Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and Learning found that forests with elephants and chitals had suffered significant degradation (Interview Island) compared to places where they were absent (Little Andaman). It’s a one-two punch: elephants knock down trees and strip barks, while chitals prevent regeneration of forests by grazing on seedlings.

The Indian bullfrog

Invasives have come in all forms to the Andamans. The Japanese introduced the Giant African Snail, one of the 100 worst invasive species as described by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in the 1940s during their three-year occupation. It has now established itself as a major agricultural pest. Meanwhile, about 90% of the fish being bred in ponds are carps and other exotic fish which have even established natural breeding sites outside human-created ponds. Similarly, the islands are home to at least 592 introduced alien plant species, some indirectly pushing endemic plants to the fringe.

Away from the obvious economic impact, it is in the sounds of the night that one can perhaps gauge the ecological impact of the invasive bullfrog. Across infested villages, residents say sightings of native species of frogs have reduced. Full grown natives pale in size to even a young bullfrog. Water snakes, a common accompaniment for the paddy farmer, and centipedes are in decline.

But even more worrying signs were found in the gut of the frog. For months, Mohanty and his associates captured and “stomach flushed” contents out of 798 individuals belonging to two native species and the invasive bullfrog. From the gut of the bullfrog came out native frogs, the endemic Andaman blind snake, the endemic emerald gecko, skinks and others. “Adult bullfrogs pose a threat to small endemic vertebrates [from frogs to birds]. Within frog species, it can have a two-pronged impact on the Limnonectes genus of frogs. Bullfrogs not only eat the native frogs, even their diets overlap, indicating a possibility of competition,” he says.

It isn’t just their size that works to their advantage. It’s their appetite for meat, even at the tadpole stage. Bullfrog tadpoles are highly carnivorous, preying on other tadpoles (even native tadpoles) heavily.

Controlling invasives

In a few villages, the explosion in population from May onward sees a feast of bullfrogs: skin fried to a crisp, their legs boiled or fried. Here, a kilo (roughly three medium-sized frogs) is sold for ₹60 — the cheapest source of protein in the market. In other places, it is anger that has humans killing the frog. “Whenever I find it on the road, I beat it with a stick. If it jumps, I’ll jump into the paddy field and chase it. One dead frog means one lesser mother laying thousands of eggs,” says a villager in North Andaman, whose name has been withheld as killing bullfrogs is a criminal act under wildlife laws. In Wandoor, a family claims to have killed nearly 50 frogs in July.

However, these are mere dents in a burgeoning population. “It is difficult…I don’t see a way to stop it. The government should think of something. Else, in five years, poora basti bhar jayega  [the village will be filled with frogs],” says Krishna Singh at Mohanpur village in North Andaman. He claims to have lost 30 chicks to the frog.

Murmurs of the conflict have started, with the issue being raised by local political representatives. “It really is a big menace. But we have to see how the population stabilises,” says S. Dam Roy, Principal Scientist at the Central Island Agricultural Research Institute, Port Blair, which operates the local agriculture helpline.

Stung by the inflow of invasives, and with the fear that more could come, it was in the serene, undulating plantations that form the CIARI headquarters that a plan was hatched five years ago to start a ₹40-crore bio-security laboratory for quarantine and research. The plan did not materialise.

Globally, invasive species, particularly in islands, are becoming the focus of numerous organisations. The Convention on Biological Diversity has said that invasives have contributed to 40% of all animal extinctions since the 17th century. The IUCN has formulated guidelines for managing invasives specifically in islands, largely involving data collection, community engagement, policy measures and management plans.

Far away from the concerns of scientific papers and environmentalists, in the government offices at Port Blair, there is little panic about invasives. “They are just animals, and nature will find a way to live in harmony,” says Tarun Coomar, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, who also holds the post of Environment Secretary in the relatively small administration governing the islands.

This confidence is not reflected among the villagers. While many are resigned to the invasion, some suggest commercial harvest for export to South-East Asia, for history has shown that animal populations crash when they have an economic value attached to them.

But for now, it is an unchecked invasion. “Bullfrogs have reached little Andaman, the next frontier is Nicobar. There are other islands they are yet to invade, and we must do everything to stop that. Signs at jetties about the adverse economic impact of bullfrogs and the need to check contamination of fish stocks could be useful,” says Mohanty.

For millenia, the islands, now a Union Territory, were largely disconnected, literally and figuratively, from the mainland. In more ways than one, the landscape here resembles those in Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia than mainland India.

In ethos too, the disconnect remains. In government offices, officials caution outsiders (whose annual numbers touch 6.5 lakh, as compared to 3.9 lakh residents) to take it slow in the islands: “Ye mainland nahiyeh Andaman hai  [This is not the mainland, this is Andaman].” But it may not stay that way for long. As the croaks of the bullfrog reverberate through the islands, their clamour assumes the urgency of a clarion call — to act before it is too late.

Mohit M Rao

Science

Rare tortoise species sighted for second time in Arunachal

Another ‘impressed’ tortoise, also known as Manouria impressa, was sighted in Arunachal Pradesh recently. This is the second time this tortoise species has been found since its discovery in the state in June this year. 
The second sighting of Manouria Impressa occurred at Kakoi area under Banderdewa forest division in Papum Pare district recently, officials said.

The tortoise is a young male, which was rescued by one Waru Nakong, a native of Kakoi. The rescued tortoise was handed over to Itanagar zoo on Friday. 

It was later handed over to the Itanagar zoo.

The impressed tortoise (Manouria impressa), occurs in mountainous forest areas in Southeast Asia in Burma, southern China, ThailandLaosVietnamCambodiaMalaysia and Northeast India[2]. The species has a golden brown shell and skin. Adults are much smaller than their relatives the Asian forest tortoise (Manouria emys), with a maximum size of 35 cm (14 in) carapace length.

The impressed tortoise lives at high elevations, up to 2,000 m (6,600 ft). Its behavior is little known; diet in the wild may consist largely of mushrooms, although bamboo shoots are also eaten. The species is known for being difficult to keep alive in captivity; although its status in the wild is uncertain, it is eaten widely by local people and little captive breeding has occurred.

Nakong said his father sighted the tortoise and informed him about it. He added that earlier the villagers used to kill tortoises for food, but now he is hopeful that they will not do so as they know these tortoises are an endangered species. 

Range forest officer of Raga under Hapoli Forest Division, Bunty Tao, has first discovered the rare species of the tortoise. Right now, there are three Manouria Impressa in the Itanagar Zoo, out of which two are male and one female. The one rescued from Kakoi is a young male tortoise.

Because of the discovery of this rare species of tortoise in Arunachal, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has written a letter of appreciation to the state forest department, informed Tao. 

The discovery of Manouria Impressa in June this year in Yazali under Lower Subansiri district has increased the total number to 29 species of non-marine chelonians and five recorded tortoises in the country.

According to an expert, the male is smaller than the female, which is 30cm in length. This tortoise eats mushroom, cucumber, pumpkin along with few other selective food items, informed SC Paul, a forester in the Itanagar Biological Park.       PTI

Science

Multiple threats to Himalayan biodiversity

The Indian Himalayas, which constitute about 12% of the country’s landmass, is home to about 30.16% of its fauna, says a new publication from the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI).

The publication, Faunal Diversity of Indian Himalaya, lists 30,377 species/subspecies in the region with the entire identified fauna in the country adding up to 1,00,762.

Spread across six States — from Jammu and Kashmir in the west through Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and West Bengal’s Darjeeling to Arunachal Pradesh in the far east —the Indian Himalayas are divided into two bio-geographic zones — the Trans-Himalaya and the Himalaya, based on physiographic, climatic and eco-biological attributes.

Pit viper

Pit viper

Abundance of species

The entire region, spread over 3.95 lakh sq. km., is home to 280 species of mammals, 940 species of birds, 316 species of fishes, 200 species of reptiles and 80 species of amphibians. This put together accounts for 27.6% of the total vertebrate diversity of the country.

The central Himalayas are the most rich in faunal diversity with 14,183 species, followed by the west Himalayas, which is home to 12,022 species.

Dr. Kailash Chandra, Director of ZSI, one of the authors of the publication, said no other geographic region in the country is as unique and influences the ecology and bio-geography of the country as the Indian Himalayas.

Black-necked Crane (Grus nigricollis) seen near Rhongo village Ladakh (1)

Black-necked Crane (Grus nigricollis) seen near Rhongo village Ladakh 

Extensive collaboration

According to Dr. Chandra, 85 taxonomic experts and specialists of various groups of faunal groups actively collaborated and contributed more than 50 chapters on the organisms, their habitats and the threats facing them.

In addition to Dr. Chandra, the publication has been co-authored by K.C. Gopi, Devanshu Gupta, Bausudev Tripathi and Vikas Kumar.

Measuring the range of species spread over the biotic provinces of the vast Indian Himalayan land mass, the authors aimed to identify areas for future research.

Dr. Chandra said the fauna of the region exhibited an intermingling of both the Oriental and Palaearctic-Ethiopian elements. He explained that the eastern parts of the Indian Himalayas, a bio-diversity hotspot, had tropical elements with their affinities from Indo-Chinese and Malayan sub-regions of the Oriental region. The fauna of the western part of the Indian Himalayas on the other hand, comprises the Mediterranean and Ethiopian elements.

The Indian Himalayas also have 131 protected areas, which cover 9.6% of the entire protected area of the country, almost the same as the Western Ghats (10% of protected areas), another biodiversity hotspot in the country. The protected areas include 20 national parks, 71 wildlife sanctuaries, five tiger reserves, four biosphere reserves and seven Ramsar Wetland sites.

The publication lists 133 vertebrate species of the region cited as threatened in the IUCN Red List. This includes 43 species of mammals like the critically endangered Pygmy Hog, the Namdapha flying squirrel and the endangered Snow leopard, the Red Panda and the Kashmir Gray Langur.

Fifty-two species of birds are also in the threatened category like the critically endangered White-Bellied Heron and Siberian crane and vulnerable species like the Black Necked crane and the Indian Spotted eagle, among others. Of the 940 bird species found in the Indian Himalayas, 39 are endemic to the region.

The Indian Himalayas host 1,249 species/subspecies of butterflies, with the highest density recorded in Arunachal Pradesh. Some of the rare high-altitude butterflies found in the Himalayas are Parnassius stoliczkanus (Ladakh banded Apollo) and Parnassius epaphus (Red Apollo), listed under Schedule I and Schedule II of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, respectively.

Role of climate change

According to experts, most of the threatened species of vertebrates, particularly mammals, require population assessment and study of the role of climate change on their habitat.

Climate change is the major threat as far as mammals and birds are concerned. The impact is visible in the shifting distribution of sensitive species like the Asiatic Black Bear, the Snow leopard, and the Himalayan Marmot. “Carnivores and their habitats are threatened by ever-increasing human-wildlife conflict in the region,” the publication states.

Habitat loss due to land use change, illegal wildlife trade, forest fires and increasing anthropogenic activities pose threats to this Himayalan biodiversity, the publication underlines.

by Shiv Sahay Singh